‘The Bling Ring’: Sofia Coppola’s Beautiful Romp Through the Teenage Wasteland of Calabasas

There is a scene in The Bling Ring where the titular teen felons hit a Los Angeles nightclub after a night of “shopping” at Paris Hilton’s empty house. It’s all bottle service, loose cash and cocaine and the look on their faces is unmistakable: this is happiness. Sofia Coppola’s film does not celebrate these teenagers, but it certainly doesn’t indict their priorities either; it’s far too well made for such brash generalizations. While this isn’t the first of Coppola’s films with famous characters, it’s the first one in which fame looks fun. Granted, it all comes crashing down, but Coppola sure makes it entertaining to watch it all unfold.

The Bling Ring is not a complicated film. This is not to say it’s bad, far from it, but those left baffled by the ambiguous ending of 2010’s Somewhere should not fear Coppola’s take on the group of real life teens who, between October 2008 and August 2009, burglarized the homes of several celebrities including Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge and, of course, Paris Hilton. More so than any of Coppola’s previous films, The Bling Ring is happy to step back and let the characters’ lives play out. It feels far less intimate than any of her previous work. This is a group of narcissistic criminals with designer clothes, unlimited data plans and a million Facebook friends. This is the American dream.

Israel Broussard’s Marc is as close as the film gets to a protagonist. He’s the awkward new kid at the “dropout” school who falls into the wrong crowd led by Katie Chang’s Rebecca. They bond fast in the way that young people do, initially over a pair of Miu Miu shoes they spot in a tabloid magazine. Rebecca is drawn to Marc’s corruptibility, while Marc appears drawn to Rebecca’s self-assured ways, the rare teenager with no self-doubt (and no self-awareness).

If Rebecca is bad news, her friends Sam and Nicki are tragedies. The Jude Law-texting, constantly-clubbing maybe models are played without abandon by Taissa Farmiga and Emma Watson. Fans of the cult E! reality phenomenon Pretty Wild will recognize many scenes between Sam, Nicki and their mother played by Leslie Mann as ripped directly from the show. Sadly, this gem doesn’t make the cut, but the film is based on the article Alexis Neiers (the inspiration for Watson’s Nicki) is gesticulating so wildly about. A scene depicting an interview with Nicki towards the end of the film does borrow some of the “great, amazing, talented, strong, healthy” verbiage, however.

It isn’t long before the crew graduates from stealing wallets in unlocked cars to hanging out in Paris Hilton’s nightclub room while she’s hosting parties in Las Vegas and Miami. Before leaving, they grab a couple thousand dollars worth of clothes, shoes and jewels which they accurately predict Paris will never even notice are missing. It’s here where something unexpected happens, while you aren’t exactly rooting for this band of teenage dreams, you don’t feel bad for their victims either. These are all people who’ve done nothing to deserve the fortunes life has draped on their shoulders and what’s more, they all left the doors to their gaudy mansions unlocked. Coppola’s take on this story is deceptively simple. It would be much easier to present a true crime story, good guys versus bad guys. Coppola shines the light on each character’s true, and often ugly, nature, it’s up to you to figure out what it means that these people have become the American ideal.

As always with Coppola, the film is beautiful, each shot looks torn out of the pages of a fashion magazine’s editorial spread. The Bling Ring is dedicated to its cinematographer Harris Savides, who died of brain cancer last October; this is his final film. One scene, the burglary of Audrina Patridge’s house, is particularly memorable, as it’s shot in one take, from a wide angle, as Marc and Rebecca tear through the Hills star’s floor-to-ceiling glass bungalow. Another Coppola standard, this film’s soundtrack does not disappoint. It’s poppy, unapologetic and loud. Very loud. Except for when it’s not; each burglary is uncomfortably quiet, only coyotes and helicopters in the background, Los Angeles white noise.

The comparisons to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers are inevitable; during another nightclub scene (one of many) in which Watson poses for pictures with cash stolen from the home of Paris Hilton, you can almost hear Vanessa Hudgens’ repeated mantra, “this money makes my pu**y wet.” But where Korine’s satire of youthful vanity and indiscretion is brash and booming, Coppola’s is a much smarter twist of the knife. The Bling Ring is a brilliant takedown of a culture lost to idol worship. Her film points and says, this is what you’ve allowed American culture to become. Is there really a lesson to be learned? It’s unclear, but if the film’s final shot is to be believed, no one learns anything and no one changes.